Police say they have solved the 22-year-old mystery of "Baby Hope," the child whose body was found dumped in a cooler in the woods in upper Manhattan in 1991, announcing the arrest Saturday of a cousin they say sexually assaulted and smothered the 4-year-old girl. Checkey Beckford reports.
The announcement of an arrest in one of New York City's most notorious cold cases was especially relieving for two hardened investigators, who for 22 years had been working to identify the girl they nicknamed Baby Hope after discovering her body stuffed in a picnic cooler along a highway.
Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Melissa Mourges, the original prosecutor in the 1991 case and now chief of the cold case unit, told a Manhattan judge that Conrado Juarez, 52, was charged with felony murder late Saturday.
The charge came shortly after police announced the Bronx man was a relative of the tiny victim, 4-year-old Anjelica Castillo. Police revealed her name for the first time earlier in the day, and by Sunday someone had placed the name on her tombstone.
Juarez, wearing a white short sleeve button-down shirt and blue pants, pleaded not guilty but said nothing else after he was remanded to custody. Attorney information was not immediately available.
"Over the years, the optimism was always there except the frustration would grow," said Detective Joseph Reznick, now an NYPD assistant chief who, in 1993, read the eulogy at the girl's burial before hundreds of mourners. "I think reflecting back on what we named this little girl, Baby Hope, I think it's the most accurate name we could have come up with."
"You know the expression I'm on cloud 9? Well, that's where I am right now," said former detective Jerry Giorgio, who had the case from 1991 until this summer, when he retired from the Manhattan district attorney's cold case squad.
For more than two decades, the girl's name, age and circumstances of death were unknown. But in a dramatic turnaround, police last week announced that a new tip and a DNA test had allowed them to finally identify the baby's mother.
Then, on Saturday, police Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced the arrest of Juarez, a dishwasher, who Kelly said confessed to the killing, claiming he killed the girl at his now-deceased sister's apartment after sexually abusing her. He told authorities that the sister helped him dispose of the body. They were cousins of the girl's father.
On Sunday, a resident of the building where Juarez lived in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx said he was shocked to learn his neighbor could have committed such a horrific crime.
"He looked like a nice gentleman, quiet," said Stan Pullen. "Very disturbing and so close to home."
The case became an obsession for some investigators, who worked tirelessly to chase down every lead and generate new ones.
In July, detectives tried another round of publicity on the 22nd anniversary of the discovery of Baby Hope's body. They canvassed the neighborhood where she was found, hung fliers, circulated sketches of her and a photograph of the cooler and announced a $12,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
A tipster, who saw recent news stories on the case, led police to Anjelica's sister, who told detectives she thought her sister had been killed. Police matched DNA from Anjelica to their mother. The mother, who was not identified, didn't have custody of Anjelica at the time of the girl's death — she had been living with relatives on the father's side, including Juarez's sister, Balvina Juarez-Ramirez, police said.
Police closed in on the suspect and waited for him Friday outside a Manhattan restaurant where he worked. He told them he noticed Anjelica while visiting the family apartment and killed her, police said.
"When she went motionless, he summoned his sister from another room," Kelly said.
Then, the sister got the blue cooler — which still contained full cans of Coke. They took a livery cab from Queens to Manhattan, where they dumped the cooler, then separated.
Her parents never reported her missing, though they had contact with the suspect. Juarez had never been considered a suspect before. Police refused to say whether he had previous arrests or had been accused in other sexual assaults.
Kelly called the arrest a superb case of detective work and said he was proud of his officers.
"For me, it makes you proud to be a member of this organization — they were unrelenting," he said.
The detectives assigned to the case were instrumental in organizing a burial in a Bronx cemetery for the girl in 1993. The girl was dressed in a white frock and buried in a white coffin.
The detectives paid for the girl's headstone, which reads: "Because we care."
Lori Bordonaro and Jake Pearson contributed to this report.